Monday, December 1, 2008

The Biggest Names in Germany

Two weekends ago, Dr. Martin Sander, “the dinosaur guy” of the University of Bonn, along with his research unit, hosted an international conference on sauropod paleobiology. Sauropods are the massive long-necked dinosaurs that usually greet you at major natural history museums. I got to volunteer to run the projectors for the research presentations which meant I participated in all the dinners and coffee breaks where all the real science happens.

There were more than paleontologists in attendance. There were ecologists, physiologists, and biomechanical engineers all lending their field’s insight into the outstanding questions of sauropod biology. Many of the questions sound like something a little kid asks when he sees the bones for the first time, “How did they get so big?” “What did they eat?” “Could they rear back on their hind legs?” “Did they live in herds?” It’s really kind of overwhelming how much I learned in the three days of the conference. Now I genuinely feel I could hold my own in a debate with specialists on the neck posture of the animals (Here’s the paradox, the neck vertebrae of animals like Brachiosaurus (see photos) clearly indicate it held its head up like a giraffe. However, the heart of the animal would have taken up most of its chest in order to create the kind of blood pressure necessary to get blood to the brain. People have suggested the animals had auxiliary hearts in the neck and have discussed how much blood would need to get to such a tiny head, but the point remains: If you want to get blood to go up 5 or 6 meters, you need a hell of a ticker).

One of the best parts of the conference was the opportunity to meet an international crowd of experts on these animals and Mesozoic biology. I chatted with Jim Farlow, an expert on dinosaur tracks, Paul Upchurch, an expert on their phylogeny (how they relate to one another), Matt Wedel, an expert on their massive lungs, and Brain McNab, an expert on warm-blooded metabolism. I also had time to hang out with my fellow students and the future of many of the debates I listened to. Check out the next entry for student stories of bar crawling. For now, I’ll stick to the daylight hours…

The whole conference was paid for by the DFG, the National Science Foundation of Germany, where they fund “Pure Research” that is, research that doesn’t necessarily have an obvious practical goal such as particle physics, astronomy and paleontology. The format, as conceived by Dr. Sander, encouraged discussion and debate between the attendees. He wanted the final day to bring together a synthesis of “What we know” and more importantly “What we don’t know (but may be able to figure out).”

Then we took off for a field trip across Germany to look at her most famous sauropod dinosaurs. In North-central Germany there’s a national monument preserving an ancient trackway from 130 million years ago. It’s a coastal environment and the footprints (Spuren) include the massive prints of sauropods and Iguanodons. Surrounding the national treasure is a private park called “Dino Park.” The park is filled with life-size reconstructions of ancient animals. The park was first built in the ‘60s and you can see the old models with kangaroo-like T. rexes going for pudgy, pig-like Triceratops. These models evolve into the slimmer, more athletic and bird-like animals we recognize as dinosaurs today. Here's the link to an album of photos from the park and, yes, there will be a quiz on the names of all the animals.

Also housed at the museum are the remains of Europasaurus. The animal was discovered a couple years ago in a quarry near the park and the town of Goslar and described by Dr. Sander. It looks a lot like Brachiosaurus (spell check just thought I wanted to write Brontosaurus. It's time to write an angry e-mail to someone about Apatosaurus being the only correct spelling), one of the tallest dinosaurs ever, except he’s only the size of a cow. Back during the Late Jurassic, Europe was an archipelago of islands that looked like the modern Caribbean (I thought it was still like that. Why else would I want to live here for a year?). When large, warm-blooded animals get stuck on islands, they tend to shrink through geologic time. Thus one of the mightiest dinosaurs to ever stomp became a cute, horse-sized animal. The fossils were found in shallow tropical marine limestones and they are gorgeous in their preservation. Usually dinosaur pieces are scrappy and weathered, but these bones are fully intact. You should share that tidbit with your friends tomorrow at lunch.

We got to examine the bones ourselves and check out all the other material they’ve discovered, such as pterosaur (flying-reptile) pelvises and turtles, all exceptionally preserved. To wander around looking at fossils, eavesdropping on the highly technical discussions that surrounded me was a fantastic glimpse into the debates that surround these animals.

(Here's a link to more pictures illustrating the second phase of the excursion)

That night was spent in Goslar, a classic small German town. Unaffected (physically) by World War II, the town retains medieval homes, churches and castles. The site is famous as the home to the oldest, continually used silver mine in the world. It was opened in the 10th century and was still mined through the 1960s. Dinner was at a cute rustic hunting lodge of a restaurant where they served elk, boar and venison. The menu was in about six different languages, so despite the humble exterior, you know they rack in the tourists.

After a walk around town the next morning, one of the first bitterly cold days of winter, we headed to the quarry where Europasaurus was found. The place is a limestone mine with massive beds of material that have literally been turned upside down through mountain forming processes 50 million years after they were laid down. The material is really hard and must be quarried with dynamite to bring down the blocks. The DFG hasn’t given Dr. Sander funding for a scientific excavation of the site, so paleontologists must content themselves with scrambling over the fallen boulders searching for fossils exposed in the fallen blocks. It’s not an ideal situation, but trained eyes can recognize which layer a block might call home, allowing correlation of the material to the slanted walls.

I really haven’t done that much fieldwork in commercially developed sites, but in Germany, every paleontologically interesting locality doubles as an active economic quarry. I’m glad to know that most of my future excursions will be far from the heavy machinery of mining, even if bulldozers are useful when you need to remove a couple tons of over-burden.

From the quarry we rolled on to Berlin. Most people to visit Berlin go for the hip nightlife, trendy galleries and the cutting edge of European fashion and art. We wanted to go for the fossils. To be more specific, I wanted to go for two fossils.

The Berlin Brachiosaurus mount is illustrated in nearly every book on dinosaurs I’ve ever seen. The towering animal with slightly flexed forelimbs is equivalent to "Berlin" in my brain. In 1906 a German exposition to Tanzania brought the animal to Deutschland along with thousands of other bones and everything was quickly mounted to show off the physical scale of German scientific achievement. The animals dragged their tails on the ground and looked a bit crocodile-like in their posture and anatomy. Nearly 100 years later, the museum decided to update the display with animations of the animals in action. They also wanted to get the tails up off the ground. A graduate student at Bonn was recruited as the scientific adviser for the project. Kristien Remes literally stood on the ground as crews of workers hoisted the bones into position. He would call out, “Put the scapula a little higher!” “Make the femur straighter!” A yoga coach for animals dead 130 million years.

We got to walk through the exhibit with now Dr. Remes as our guide. In the same room is a darkened alcove with the word "Archeopteryx" printed over the entrance. Inside is a fossil that has become synonymous with “evolution” and the “missing-link.” The Berlin Archeopteryx.

Evidence of the animal was first discovered in 1860. A lone pinion feather was found in the Stolnhofen limestone in northern Bavaria. Scientists at the time thought this was very interesting because it meant birds were sharing the world with dinosaurs. Then in 1861 a skeleton was found at the height of the debate over Mr. Darwin’s new ideas about the history of life. The fossil seemed to be a small reptilian dinosaur, but around the arms and tail were the clear shapes of feathers. The animal was described by pro and anti-evolutionists when it was brought to London, but the fossil was a little scrappy. Then in 1876 another fossil was found. This fossil preserved nearly every bone in the body and the imprints of feathers around the wings and tail. No one was sure if it should be called a reptile or bird. It was a perfect missing link. The fossil wound up in Berlin and has graced the covers of books on evolution, featured in documentaries and now I could finally enter the alcove and examine the fossil myself.

The animal is gorgeous with each delicate claw and tooth perfectly in place. Many people complain that it’s a bit flattened, particularly the skull, but they miss the point. The detail preserved in the rock, right down to the feathers revealing true flying abilities is evidence of the amazing creative force that is biological evolution. I stood in awe trying to soak up every three-dimensional detail that does not appear in photographs. One of the reasons I wanted to do research in this country was because I wanted to see this animal. It was worth it.

Then we descended into the “Knochenkeller” or “Bone cellar” where the large bones of mammoths and sauropods are stored on the shelves and nooks in a subterranean vault. Scientific debate raged now that the actual evidence of these massive animals confronted the physiologists and paleontologists. I still tried to put the scale of these animals into some kind of understandable context.

The rest of the museum was a hodge-podge of old and new displays. The exhibit on the ocean, the formation of the planets and modern animal diversity were well-lit with engaging explainations and diagrams for all age groups. Unfortunately the sections on fossil not connected to Archaeopteryx and Brachiosaurus were probably put together in the 1970s and haven’t been touched since. We’ve learned a lot about the past in the last thirty years, so hopefully the displays will catch up soon, giving all Nature’s evolutionary experiments their due moment of wonder.

After a hustle through the displays, it was time to pile back onto the bus and begin the seven hour trip back to Bonn. Conversations still went on as questions bombarded my brain and I furiously tried to write down all the stuff I needed to read about my field when I got back to a library and online databases. I might have over-dosed on massive dinosaurs, or I might have found a new field to wade into. We’ll see what I’m up to in twenty years.

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